Chapter 9 Superstitions

Felix was now outside the town and alone in the meadow which bordered the stream; he knelt, and drank from it with the hollow of his hand. He was going to ascend the hill beyond, and had already reached the barrier upon that side, when he recollected that etiquette demanded the presence of the guests at meal-times, and it was now the hour for tea. He hastened back, and found the courtyard of the castle crowded. Within, the staircase leading to the Baroness’s chamber (where tea was served) could scarcely be ascended, what with the ladies and their courtiers, the long trains of the serving-women, the pages winding their way in and out, the servants endeavouring to pass, the slender pet greyhounds, the inseparable companions of their mistresses.

By degrees, and exercising patience, he gained the upper floor and entered the drawing-room. The Baroness alone sat at the table, the guests wheresoever they chose, or chance carried them; for the most part they stood, or leaned against the recess of the open window. Of tea itself there was none; there had been no tea to be had for love or money these fifty years past, and, indeed, its use would have been forgotten, and the name only survived, had not some small quantities been yet preserved and brought out on rare occasions at the palaces. Instead, there was chicory prepared from the root of the plant, grown for the purpose; fresh milk; fine ale and mead; and wine from Gloucester. Butter, honey, and cake were also on the table.

The guests helped themselves, or waited till the servants came to them with wooden carved trays. The particular characteristic of tea is the freedom from restraint; it is not considered necessary to sit as at dinner or supper, nor to do as others do; each pleases himself, and there is no ceremony. Yet, although so near Aurora, Felix did not succeed in speaking to her; Durand still engaged her attention whenever other ladies were not talking with her. Felix found himself, exactly as at dinner-time, quite outside the circle. There was a buzz of conversation around, but not a word of it was addressed to him. Dresses brushed against him, but the fair owners were not concerned even to acknowledge his existence.

Pushed by the jostling crowd aside from the centre of the floor, Felix presently sat down, glad to rest at last, behind the open door. Forgotten, he forgot; and, looking as it were out of the present in a bitter reverie, scarcely knew where he was, except at moments when he heard the well-known and loved voice of Aurora. A servant after a while came to him with a tray; he took some honey and bread. Almost immediately afterwards another servant came and presented him with a plate, on which was a cup of wine, saying, “With my lady’s loving wishes.”

As in duty bound, he rose and bowed to the Baroness; she smiled and nodded; the circle which had looked to see who was thus honoured, turned aside again, not recognising him. To send a guest a plate with wine or food is the highest mark of esteem, and this plate in especial was of almost priceless value, as Felix saw when his confusion had abated. It was of the ancient china, now not to be found in even the houses of the great.

In all that kingdom but five perfect plates were known to exist, and two of these were at the palace. They are treasured as heirlooms, and, if ever broken, can never be replaced. The very fragments are rare; they are often set in panels, and highly prized. The Baroness, glancing round her court, had noticed at last the young man sitting in the obscure corner behind the door; she remembered, not without some twinge of conscience, that his house was their ancient ally and sworn hearth-friend.

She knew, far better than the Baron, how deeply her daughter loved him; better, perhaps, even than Aurora herself. She, too, naturally hoped a higher alliance for Aurora; yet she was a true woman, and her heart was stronger than her ambition. The trifle of the wine was, of course, nothing; but it was open and marked recognition. She expected that Felix (after his wont in former times, before love or marriage was thought of for Aurora) would have come upon this distinct invitation, and taken his stand behind her, after the custom. But as he did not come, fresh guests and the duties of hospitality distracted her attention, and she again forgot him.

He was, indeed, more hurt than pleased with the favour that had been shown him; it seemed to him (though really prompted by the kindest feeling) like a bone cast at a dog. He desired to be so regarded that no special mark of favour should be needed. It simply increased his discontent. The evening wore on, the supper began; how weary it seemed to him, that long and jovial supper, with the ale that ran in a continual stream, the wine that ceaselessly circled round, the jokes, and bustle, and laughter, the welcome to guests arriving; the cards, and chess, and games that succeeded it, the drinking, and drinking, and drinking, till the ladies again left; then drinking yet more freely.

He slipped away at the first opportunity, and having first strolled to and fro on the bowling green, wet with dew, at the rear of the castle, asked for his bedroom. It was some time before he could get attended to; he stood alone at the foot of the staircase while others went first (their small coins bought them attention), till at last a lamp was brought to him, and his chamber named. This chamber, such as it was, was the only pleasure, and that a melancholy one, he had had that day.

Though overflowing with guests, so that the most honoured visitors could not be accommodated within the castle, and only the ladies could find sleeping room there, yet the sacred law of honour, the pledge of the hearth-friend passed three generations ago, secured him this privilege. The hearth-friend must sleep within, if a king were sent without. Oliver, of course, would occupy the same room, but he was drinking and shouting a song below, so that for a while Felix had the chamber to himself.

It pleased him, because it was the room in which he had always slept when he visited the place from a boy, when, half afraid and yet determined to venture, he had first come through the lonely forest alone. How well he remembered that first time! the autumn sunshine on the stubble at Old House, and the red and brown leaves of the forest as he entered; how he entered on foot, and twice turned back, and twice adventured again, till he got so deep into the forest that it seemed as far to return as to advance. How he started at the sudden bellow of two stags, and the clatter of their horns as they fought in the brake close by, and how beautiful the castle looked when presently he emerged from the bushes and looked down upon it!

This was the very room he slept in; the Baroness, mother-like, came to see that he was comfortable. Here he had slept every time since; here he had listened in the early morning for Aurora’s footfall as she passed his door, for the ladies rose earlier than did the men. He now sat down by the open window; it was a brilliant moonlight night, warm and delicious, and the long-drawn note of the nightingale came across the gardens from the hawthorn bushes without the inner stockade. To the left he could see the line of the hills, to the right the forest; all was quiet there, but every now and then the sound of a ballad came round the castle, a sound without recognizable words, inarticulate merriment.

If he started upon the hazardous voyage he contemplated, and for which he had been so long preparing, should he ever sleep there again, so near the one he loved? Was it not better to be poor and despised, but near her, than to attempt such an expedition, especially as the chances (as his common sense told him) were all against him? Yet he could not stay; he must do it, and he tried to stifle the doubt which insisted upon arising in his mind. Then he recurred to Durand; he remembered that not once on that day had he exchanged one single word, beyond the first and ordinary salutation, with Aurora.

Might she not, had she chosen, have arranged a moment’s interview? Might she not easily have given him an opportunity? Was it not clear that she was ashamed of her girlish fancy for a portionless and despised youth? If so, was it worth while to go upon so strange an enterprise for her sake? But if so, also, was life worth living, and might he not as well go and seek destruction?

While this conflict of feeling was proceeding, he chanced to look towards the table upon which he had carelessly placed his lamp, and observed, what in his agitated state of mind he had previously overlooked, a small roll of manuscript tied round with silk. Curious in books, he undid the fastening, and opened the volume. There was not much writing, but many singular diagrams, and signs arranged in circles. It was, in fact, a book of magic, written at the dictation, as the preface stated, of one who had been for seven years a slave among the Romany.

He had been captured, and forced to work for the tent to which his owners belonged. He had witnessed their worship and their sorceries; he had seen the sacrifice to the full moon, their chief goddess, and the wild extravagances with which it was accompanied. He had learnt some few of their signs, and, upon escaping, had reproduced them from memory. Some were engraved on the stones set in their rings; some were carved on wooden tablets, some drawn with ink on parchment; but, with all, their procedure seemed to be the repetition of certain verses, and then a steady gaze upon the picture. Presently they became filled with rapture, uttered what sounded as the wildest ravings, and (their women especially) prophesied of the future.

A few of the signs he understood the meaning of, but the others he owned were unknown to him. At the end of the book were several pages of commentary, describing the demons believed in and worshipped by the Romany, demons which haunted the woods and hills, and against which it was best to be provided with amulets blessed by the holy fathers of St. Augustine. Such demons stole on the hunter at noonday, and, alarmed at the sudden appearance, upon turning his head (for demons invariably approach from behind, and their presence is indicated by a shudder in the back), he toppled into pits hidden by fern, and was killed.

Or, in the shape of a dog, they ran between the traveller’s legs; or as woman, with tempting caresses, lured him from the way at nightfall into the leafy recesses, and then instantaneously changing into vast bat-like forms, fastened on his throat and sucked his blood. The terrible screams of such victims had often been heard by the warders at the outposts. Some were invisible, and yet slew the unwary by descending unseen upon him, and choking him with a pressure as if the air had suddenly become heavy.

But none of these were, perhaps, so much to be dreaded as the sweetly-formed and graceful ladies of the fern. These were creatures, not of flesh and blood, and yet not incorporeal like the demons, nor were they dangerous to the physical man, doing no bodily injury. The harm they did was by fascinating the soul so that it revolted from all religion and all the rites of the Church. Once resigned to the caress of the fern-woman, the unfortunate was lured farther and farther from the haunts of men, until at last he wandered into the unknown forest, and was never seen again. These creatures were usually found among the brake fern, nude, but the lower limbs and body hidden by the green fronds, their white arms and shoulders alone visible, and their golden hair aglow with the summer sunshine.

Demons there were, too, of the streams, and demons dwelling in the midst of the hills; demons that could travel only in the moonbeams, and others that floated before the stormy winds and hurled the wretched wanderer to destruction, or crushed him with the overthrown trees. In proof of this the monk asked the reader if he had not heard of huge boughs falling from trees without visible cause, suddenly and without warning, and even of trees themselves in full foliage, in calm weather, toppling with a crash, to the imminent danger or the death of those who happened to be passing. Let all these purchase the amulets of St. Augustine, concluded the writer, who it appeared was a monk in whose monastery the escaped prisoner had taken refuge, and who had written down his relation and copied his rude sketches.

Felix pored over the strange diagrams, striving to understand the hidden meaning; some of them he thought were alchemical signs, and related to the making of gold, especially as the prisoner stated the Romany possessed much more of that metal in the tents than he had seen in the palaces of our kings. Whether they had a gold mine from whence they drew it, or whether they had the art of transmutation, he knew not, but he had heard allusions to the wealth in the mountain of the apple trees, which he supposed to be a mystical phrase.

When Felix at last looked up, the lamp was low, the moonbeams had entered and fell upon the polished floor, and from the window he could see a long white ghostly line of mist where a streamlet ran at the base of the slope by the forest. The songs were silent; there was no sound save the distant neigh of a horse and the heavy tramp of a guest coming along the gallery. Half bewildered by poring over the magic scroll, full of the signs and the demons, and still with a sense of injury and jealousy cankering his heart, Felix retired to his couch, and, weary beyond measure, instantly fell asleep.

In his unsettled state of mind it did not once occur to him to ask himself how the manuscript came to be upon his table. Rare as they were, books were not usually put upon the tables of guests, and at an ordinary time he would certainly have thought it peculiar. The fact was, that Aurora, whom all day he had inwardly accused of forgetting him, had placed it there for him with her own hands. She, too, was curious in books and fond of study. She had very recently bought the volume from a merchant who had come thus far, and who valued it the least of all his wares.

She knew that Felix had read and re-read every other scrap of writing there was in the castle, and thought that this strange book might interest him, giving, as it did, details of those powers of the air in which almost all fully believed. Unconscious of this attention, Felix fell asleep, angry and bitter against her. When, half an hour afterwards, Oliver blundered into the room, a little unsteady on his legs, notwithstanding his mighty strength, he picked up the roll, glanced at it, flung it down with contempt, and without a minute’s delay sought and obtained slumber.